Thursday, October 18, 2007

Killer Keller must resign

Photo by Jana Birchum
Published by The Daily Texan

"We close at five." It took these four words for Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Presiding Judge Sharon Keller to deny a convicted killer's last appeal. On September 25, the same day the U.S. Supreme Court granted a writ of certiorari to a Kansas inmate questioning the constitutionality of lethal injection, Michael Richard was scheduled to be executed. The attorneys for the Texas Defenders Service requested that the court clerk's office remain open 20 minutes after the 5 p.m. closing time because their computers had crashed. Keller shocked the world by closing the court's office at 5 p.m. on an execution day without even consulting any of the other judges of the court. As a result, a man was executed without being able to have the merits of his last appeal considered by the criminal justice system.

The Court of Criminal Appeals is the highest criminal court in Texas and must rule on every case before the U.S. Supreme Court can consider an appeal for a stay of execution. If the CCA had accepted the case and voted to deny Richard a stay, the U.S. Supreme Court could have issued a stay. That is exactly what happened in another case two days after Richard's execution, when the court voted 5-4 to deny a stay to Carlton Turner, but U.S. Supreme Court issued a stay of execution.

According to the Houston Chronicle, several judges were in the court while Keller turned down the appeal. Judge Paul Womack stayed as late as 7 p.m. expecting to receive a late filing. Judge Cheryl Johnson, who was the assigned judge to handle any late appeals, was not even informed, in Richard's case, of Keller's action until she read the story in the Austin American-Statesman.

"And I was angry," she told the Statesman. "If I'm in charge of the execution, I ought to have known about those things, and I ought to have been asked whether I was willing to stay late and accept those filings."

Keller's action denied Michael Richard two constitutional rights, access to the courts and due process, which led to his execution. Her actions also brought the integrity of the Texas judiciary system and of her court into question. But this is not the first time Keller has behaved like a buffoon. In 2000, she wrote the majority opinion in the case of Roy Criner, claiming that the new DNA evidence proving his innocence in a rape and murder case did not warrant a new trial because he could have "failed to ejaculate." According to Tom Price, one of the other conservative judges on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, as far back as 2001 she made Texas' highest criminal appeals court "a national laughingstock."

To close at 5 p.m. and refuse to accept an appeal by a person about to be executed is a violation of judicial responsibility. When a person is about to be executed, our state's highest criminal court needs to remain open for business. As long as Keller is in office, the people of Texas cannot be sure that justice is being done with integrity. Judge Sharon Keller should resign or be removed from office by the State Commission on Judicial Conduct, which is responsible for investigating allegations of judicial misconduct.

If you are as shocked as I was by Judge Sharon Keller's refusal to accept an appeal 20 minutes after 5 p.m. from lawyers representing a man about to be executed, then sign on to the general public complaint against Judge Sharon Keller by going to The complaint will be submitted to the State Commission on Judicial Conduct on Oct. 30.

Hedayati is a government junior, Students Against the Death Penalty president and a Campus Progress at the Center for American Progress advisory board member.

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